• Weird History

What Was George Washington's Private Life Like?

During the American Revolution, newspapers printed sensational stories about George Washington's affairs. An enslaved woman named Venus claimed George fathered her son. And years after his passing, a racy love letter written to a married woman threatened to destroy George's sterling reputation. But what was Washington's private life really like? Was he as virtuous as his reputation? And what about George Washington's children - is it true the man died without ever fathering one?

While the Founding Father often tops lists of the best presidents, he lived an intensely private life and seemed to prefer his rambling plantation, Mount Vernon, to time in the spotlight. 

Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis out of obligation and allegedly remained loyal throughout their marriage, despite his spouse's complaints about feeling trapped in the role of first lady. Meanwhile, Washington spent his personal time breeding mules and putting hundreds of enslaved people to work from dawn until dark. All told, he led a complicated and controversial life.

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  • Photo: Daniel Huntington / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Martha Said She Felt Like A Prisoner As The First Lady

    Her husband spent eight years away from home during the Revolutionary War, but Martha Washington wasn't happy to learn her spouse was elected president. Hardly shy about expressing her displeasure, Martha told her brother she was "truly sorry to tell" of her husband's victory. She added, "It was much too late for him to go in to public life again."

    Martha did not accept her role as first lady willingly. The formal dress, weekly receptions, and socializing were difficult adjustments. Martha even complained to her niece she felt "more like a state prisoner than anything else."

  • Photo: Gilbert Stuart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Martha Wasn't Shy About Getting Her Husband's Attention

    Washington married up: Martha Dandridge Custis contributed a fortune to her marriage and catapulted her husband to the top of Virginia's high society. Apparently, Martha made sure no one forgot this fact, either. According to reports, she was not the typical, deferential 18th-century wife. In fact, she insisted on being heard by her husband.

    Martha was a foot shorter than her husband, but if she wanted attention, she yanked on Washington's collar, making him look her in the eye. The unusual method seemed to work - records indicate the president respected his wife's opinions.

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    He Struggled With Violent Diarrhea And Other Ailments

    Disease plagued Washington his entire life. As a teenager, he struggled with diphtheria. Washington also caught tuberculosis and smallpox during a trip to Barbados in his late teens. During the French and Indian Wars, Washington grappled with dysentery and bloody stool.

    Dr. Howard Markel, director of the University of Michigan's Center for the History of Medicine, said of Washington:

    At one point when he was fighting, he was in such agony from diarrhea and intense rectal pain that he needed to put a pillow underneath him on his horse.

    Washington also contracted malaria and pneumonia, and eventually succumbed to epiglottitis.

  • Photo: Snapshots Of The Past / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    He Distilled Whiskey And Grew Hemp

    Washington maintained a distillery that became one of the largest producers of whiskey in the country. Washington's whiskey was so popular, he used bottles to pay his family physician and the overseers of the farm. In 1799, the year Washington died, Mount Vernon's distillery cranked out almost 11,000 gallons, and the fields produced the corn and rye necessary for the alcoholic drink.

    Whiskey wasn't the only surprising product from Washington's plantation estate. Hemp also grew on his land for decades. The crop became ropes, cloth, and nets for Mount Vernon, but varied greatly from modern recreational cannabis. It contained less than 0.03% THC, much lower than the 6% to 20% in 21st-century strains.